When the NFL football schedule comes out each late spring, it's a big day for our family. All five of us mull it over, and come to agreement about how and where to continue our annual tradition of creating a mini-vacation built around an away game. Then we spend weeks researching our many options -- flights and hotels, sites to see, special places to eat, quirky requests (Bucc'ee's in Houston, for example).
Two years ago we braved 50-below wind chills to see our Indianapolis Colts defeat the Minnesota Vikings. Last year we lost to the New York Jets and this year, it was the Houston Texans that defeated us in a tight loss.
While the games get us there, they are merely a part of the overall trips. It's fun to experience the unique cultural climate of each stadium and fan base. There's Minnesota loyalists with their braided toboggan caps, uber-warm boots and Vikings Skol chants in a beautiful indoor stadium; New York Jets with former Gov. Chris Christy in the parking lot, sans any kind of enterage, a nondescript, working-class feeling to their basic outdoor stadium in New Jersey and less than creative food options, and The Texans with their LOVE for football, the electric feeling of the sturdy crowd, and their A-plus selection of Texas burgers, brisket, huge loaded baked potatoes and other yummo choices.
This year's game was special as we had the fortune of sitting among the family members of a Colts player, EJ Speed. We had our own little island of blue celebrating big moments in the game.
But the crown jewel of this trip was the next day's visit to NASA at Johnson Space Center. After looking around Space Center Houston, which is a museum loaded with NASA memorabilia, including authentic space suits, capsules, a tour of the Space Shuttle, orientation films and more, it's time to see our family's two highlights of the entire vacay.
You load up into an open-air tram and off you go down city streets to the working NASA campus, Johnson Space Center. The buildings are basic, appearing to have been built in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Bikes and deer
A couple cool observations unique to the campus: vintage Schwinn bicycles are all over the place. Many of these date back to the 1960s when the company donated them to NASA so the astronauts and engineers could ride them from one building to another. Schwinn company pays an annual visit to the campus to make sure the bikes remain in good repair.
Second, deer are free to run the grounds with no fence to keep them in, as a space-age, if you will, nature preserve. It's humorous to see them all over the place, and one wonders if they ever go out into the surrounding traffic and get hit! They look perfectly content in their surroundings and unaffected by the humans and trams going by.
My favorite stop of the entire trip to Houston was a visit to the Apollo Mission Control. The building is a National Historic Landmark inside this nondescript, functional building.
Inside, those able climb the 87 steps to Mission Control. A few needed to take the elevator -- which I overheard a guide point out is the original elevator.
We're ushered into an auditorium complete with original seating, including built-in ashtrays. We're behind a glass wall where on the other side is where top engineers sat at then state-of-the-art computers (now antiques) and worked their engineering magic with the equipment that landed men on the moon, including that first walk on the moon of Neil Armstrong 50 years ago in July 2019.
After some housekeeping announcements about cell phones and the like, we were told to sit tight as we are about to view 1969 straight before us and hear the voices of the engineers and astronauts who made history. The room is perfectly refurbished and preserved to what it was in 1969. And suddenly, magic:
Only it's not magic. It's rocket science. Screens light up, as do the boards in the front of the room. We hear tapes played of the engineers giving the "go" signs for the mission. Then we hear the voices of Neil and Buzz Aldrin, we see man walk on the moon. We relive history. Not just history for the ages where 100 years from now people will likely still be touring this space, but our personal history, as most of us in that audience were alive when it happened in real time.
I've been personally touched by the moon landing and walk this year. First, I remember with clarity how important it was in that my mom insisted I stay awake and watch Neil take that stroll on live TV. Then that fall, in Jeanne Sipahigil's fifth-grade classroom, I wrote an essay about how touched I was by the experience. And to think! Jeanne today is my Facebook friend.
Also this summer, in my job as a New Castle Courier-Times reporter, an email arrived from a man in his 90s, Earl Thompson. Earl grew up in New Castle, but lives in Florida. Florida, as it turns out, is where he made his living as an engineer working on all the Apollo projects, specifically working in communications areas on the lunar modules and rovers. He worked directly with the astronauts, knowing all of them.
Earl and I worked together via phone and emails in detail after detail for a week or more on the two stories I would put together in conjunction with the historic 50th anniversary of the moon landing. I even went out and chatted with his New Castle siblings! Here I am with them from this past summer:
It was surreal to meet with Earl's family in New Castle, shown with The Courier-Times from half a century ago. Little did editors or reporters know then that one of their own from the city helped engineer this successful mission. It only came to public light this summer and I had the privilege of telling the story.
I also love it that Earl gave a special shout out to his New Castle High School math teacher who nurtured his natural bent toward math. The story of America: Ordinary people from ordinary towns everywhere do extraordinary things -- both that math teacher and her pupil, Earl Thompson.
All these things passed through my mind while touring Mission Control.
Then it was back to Space Center and aboard another tram. This one took us to a nondescript building, one we Hoosiers would call a gigantic pole barn, where we would step inside and see the rocket that was ready to launch Apollo 18 to the moon. This one never made it as the program ran out of money but the rocket remains. Holy cow:
I'll say it again: HOLY COW!
Can you imagine the POWER generated? The fire descending from those babies?
It was a day out of this world.